Vince Beiser (@vincelb) is an award-winning journalist specializing in social issues, technology, and the places they intersect. His latest book is The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization.

What We Discuss with Vince Beiser:

  • Sand is to cities what flour is to bread — without sand, civilization as we know it could not exist.
  • Sand is at the core of our daily lives, used to make concrete, glass, asphalt, silicon chips in laptops, and smartphones.
  • Usable sand is a finite, endangered resource and desert sand doesn’t work for construction — in fact, Dubai imports sand from Australia.
  • There’s a black market for sand, and there are sand pirates — it’s a resource over which people literally die.
  • Nearly 70% of sand on Earth is quartz (one of the most common minerals on earth), and the cycle to create new sand takes 200 million years.
  • And much more…
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Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives. And whether you realize it or not, sand is a precious, finite, and increasingly endangered resource upon which the very survival of our civilization depends.

The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization author Vince Beiser joins us to explain why this seemingly plentiful resource is in such demand, what separates useful sand from useless detritus, how sand fuels a thriving black market and murderous pirate trade, and the consequences humanity will face when this resource runs out. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

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More About This Show

It’s come to this: an entire show about sand. And while you might be tempted to take a sleepy cue from The Sandman and nap this one out, we urge you to give it a chance. Because whether you know it or not, you owe your way of life to sand. Computers? Smartphones? Cities? Not possible without the stuff.

But it’s got the be the right stuff — not just any sand will do, as Vince Beiser, author of The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization explains.

“Nobody ever thinks about it; nobody gives it a second thought,” says Vince. “It seems like the most boring thing in the world. But come to find out it’s actually the most important solid substance on Earth. Without sand, we have no modern civilization. I had no idea about that. I had no idea of how important sand is. I had no idea how it’s completely transformed life on this planet. I had no idea that people were being murdered over it until I started looking into it, and then come to find out it’s actually an incredibly important and — to me, at least — deeply fascinating subject.”

Most of the sand used by the modern world goes into concrete — sand and gravel glued together with cement — which is what every apartment block, every office tower, every shopping mall, and pretty much every building is made out of. These buildings are windowed by glass made from sand and connected by roads made from sand. Those of us inside the buildings are reading and writing on computers and communicating with one another on smartphones with chips made from sand.

“Without sand,” says Vince, “there’s no modern civilization. And the craziest thing about it is: we are starting to run out.”

It’s easy to wonder how this can be. We’ve got deserts and beaches covered in sand — it’s the most abundant thing on the planet, but it’s also used more than any other resource on the planet aside from air and water.

“We use about 50 billion tons of sand every year,” Vince says. “That’s enough to cover the entire state of California every single year. So of course there’s a lot of it, but at the end of the day, it’s a finite resource. It’s like anything else — there’s only so much of it. And the amount that we’re using has grown exponentially in the last couple of decades and that’s starting to develop into some really serious problems. All over the world, we’re stripping bare river beds, beaches, floodplains…to get at the sand, causing massive environmental damage.

“In some places, the demand is so intense that organized crime has gotten into it. There’s a black market in sand and the organized sand gangs do what criminals do everywhere: they bribe police and government officials to leave them alone, and if you really get in their way, they will kill you. Hundreds of people have been murdered over sand in the last few years.”

Listen to this episode in its entirety to learn more about what sand really is, why desert sand is mostly useless for making concrete (prompting Dubai to import sand from Australia in spite of being surrounded by the stuff), how long it takes for the useful sand we need to form, why California imports sand for its beaches from Canada, why one of the poorest regions in the United States remains economically disadvantaged in spite of the highly pure quartz sand found there supplying the means by which most of the world’s computers and smartphones are made, the fact that China used more cement in construction over the past few years than the United States did during the entire 20th century, the environmental havoc caused by — and crimes committed in — the search for more sand, and much more.


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